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December 23, 2013

Finest Musicians Turn to Steinway Pianos

by Jeff Lunden

Great pianists need great pianos. Vladimir Horowitz, the famous Russian pianist, used to travel with his own personal Steinway when he played concerts around the world.

For 160 years, the pianos of Steinway & Sons have been considered the finest in the world thanks to superior craftmanship and performance.  

Most concert halls and conservatories in America own Steinways, and pianists from Lang Lang to Billy Joel are Steinway artists. This fall, Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein used a Steinway when he appeared with the New York Philharmonic.

“I think generations of pianists’ muscular/nervous systems have been shaped by how the action feels and how the action and the sound merge into this playing experience," Gerstein said. "And for the listeners, it is this experience of listening to the Steinway sound that has really cultivated what we think piano sound is.”

Finest Musicians Turn to Steinway Pianos

Steinway pianos have been built, since 1871, in a factory complex in the city. The company was founded by German immigrant Henry Englehard Steinway in 1853, when New York had dozens of piano manufacturers.  

“In very early days, they sought very much to create the standard piano of the world," said Robert Berger, Steinway director of Customer Satisfaction. "Not the 'average' piano of the world,  the standard, the one by which all others would be judged.”

And those pianos were built to last. Today, a workforce of 300 craftsmen and women turns out about 1,500 pianos a year in the Astoria factory.

A craftsman works on a Steinway piano in the company's Astoria, New York, factory. (Photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons)
It takes 11 months to build a Steinway grand, which features 12,000 separate parts. 

The factory is a beehive of activity. In one area, thin laminates of wood are glued together and put in a press, to create the distinctive form of a grand piano. In another area, so-called belly men put the sound boards into the case. A cast iron plate is added, strings are added, the action - the hammers which hit the strings - is added.  

Pianos are tuned five times, in all.  Twice, during this process, pianos are taken to a pounding room, where a machine bangs on all eighty-eight keys at once, to help “play in” the instruments.   

A whole other area of the factory is devoted to restoring vintage Steinways.  

“July 2nd of this year was my 40th year with the company," said Bill Youse, who runs the department. "I am also a third-generation Steinway employee. And I am third of four generations, my son actually works here, as well.”

Youse says the pianos are excellent because generations of workers have all been dedicated to the same goal.

“Aside from some of the materials, like the glues and things which have improved throughout the years, the piano is very, very much the same piano that you would have gotten back in the late 1800s,” he said.

And one of his co-workers has been with Steinway for more than half a century.
    
“I am the last one to touch the piano before it leaves the factory," said Wally Boot. "I am the final tone inspector. I have been here 51 years and my job is to listen to the piano and makes sure that it sounds even and that everything works.”

And few things work like a Steinway. Boot, who grew up two blocks from the factory, says every piano has its own personality.

“If it were a bright piano, it would be like a jazz piano," he said. "If it is a mellow piano, it is more for the house, or for chamber music...a model B, this would be a concert piano,” he said.  

This level of care and craftsmanship helps explain why a new Steinway piano can cost anywhere from $55,000 to $145,000, depending on the model. Steinway's Berger says these pianos often become a treasured family heirloom, passed from generation to generation.  

“A new owner will say something to the effect of, ‘It has been a lifelong dream of mine to own a Steinway piano,’ or ‘I have saved for years, in order to buy this piano and I have finally realized my dream.’”

Hedge fund billionaire John Paulson recently bought the company, striking fear in the hearts of musicians. Would the famously hand-crafted pianos be changed, for the sake of efficiency?

Paulson, who owns several Steinways himself, says nothing will change, so that this hand-crafted dream will continue for years to come.